STLV17: Writers Talk Technobabble, Timelines And How ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Is Telling Our War Story

The highlight of the first day of the Star Trek Las Vegas convention was an afternoon dedicated to the new CBS All Access show Star Trek: Discovery. The first panel featured writer/producers Ted Sullivan and Kirsten Beyer, and executive producer Akiva Goldsman showed up as a special guest.  They talked about a range of issues from canon to character, and took questions from fans.

Star Trek: Discovery is telling our war story

Possibly the most interesting exchange was about midway through the panel when Goldsman started talking about the themes and metaphors of the show and how they fit into the scale of it:

It has allowed us to be thematically deep. We are trying to be thoughtful and really trying to explore the kinds of issues that we think Star Trek has always explored. Not be cute about it. To be thoughtful and serious about the issues of race and inclusion and alliance and alienation. And also just blow up some spaceships in a great way. It is also epic in its scope and scale as a production object. It is not like a TV show when it comes to the representations of ships. It is like like the movies. It is a different aesthetic but it is that scope and scale.

Sullivan got more specific:

It blows me away and it is super exciting. But Star Trek has never been about the ships and the sets and the costumes and props for me. It is about what is the metaphor that they are exploring in that episode or that movie. It didn’t throw me when I saw [Star Trek] The Motion Picture and it looked different than the TV show. It didn’t throw me that Wrath of Khan looked different than The Motion Picture. I just liked what they were doing creatively and I understood the story that they were telling and especially the themes.

What I am most proud of that we are dealing with this version of Star Trek and it a serialized show so we can really explore it, it is about what is going on in the world right now. We have been at war for over fifteen years and that changes you and it challenges you to be your best version of yourself and sometimes you are not always so how do you find your way back from back. To me that is a very important use of what Star Trek can be. So yes, I freak out when I am standing on a bridge with Michelle Yeoh (Capt. Georgiou). I freak out when I am in an editing room. We were just talking about an episode we just saw and it is amazing like Wrath of Khan good, it is really good. So that is awesome, but it is not why I love Star Trek.

Ted Sullivan at Discovery writers’ panel at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017

Finding the boundaries of canon in the Prime timeline (not Kelvin)

Responding to a question about what it was like writing for Discovery when you have a deep knowledge of Star Trek, Ted noted there are sometimes downsides:

I think sometimes it gets in the way. I think of what Bruce Tim said once about making the Justice League cartoon. He came up with a pitch where they break the Green Lantern ring. Everyone said “You can’t do that, it is indestructible.” He said “I think we can, it will be good for the story.”… Sometime you need to know when to break the ring, and sometimes you need to know when you don’t. Luckily we have a lot of people in the room who will tell you when to break the ring when not to.

Beyer added:

I think that is a really good way to describe it. As much as you want to honor everything that has come before. As much as you want everything we are doing to feel part  of that universe, but at the same time you want to surprise people. You don’t want to inhibit the creative process that is happening in the room by constantly reminding everyone where the boundaries are. It is fun to let people step over the boundaries and reel them back in.

Goldsman did note that this doesn’t mean violating canon:

The operative assumption being that you cannot violate what we know to be canon so you better find out how to work within it. It turns out there are a bunch of ways in being inductive and creative. It is the difference between making it up and adapting. And by choosing a period of time that is within canon it turns storytelling into adaptations.

During the Q&A they were asked how the show ties together with the recent Star Trek feature films. Akiva Goldsman noted that there were similar production elements but not in terms of the canon:

Very mildly, sort of in various ways. Star Trek itself is complicated. Enterprise which gets a bad rap is its own thing as is DS9 as is The Original Series as is The Animated Series. We are bigger than any of the shows so in that way we are more like the movies. Our sets are giant and more very filmic. We are very visual effects heavy. You can’t point the camera without pointing at a green screen. It’s big! So in that way we are like the movies. I can only say this, we are not in the Kelvin timeline. We are in The Original Series timeline. So we resonate with those stories. We are the precursor. We are ten years before TOS so we are telling those sorts of stories.


How serialized storytelling conflicts with the ‘Roddenberry Rule’

The panel also picked up on previous reporting that Discovery was not adopting the “Roddenberry Rule” of having no conflict within the main cast. Goldsman talked about how you can tell a story of a utopian vision with conflict:

What we are trying to do is suggest that the vision of the Federation, which is a utopian vision of the future and which is really vital, as vital today as it was in the 60s. We are not very neutral about that. Our bridge looks like our bridge not by accident. We are proud to be the heir of the first interracial kiss on television. We are proud to be an object that intends to talk about how peoples and cultures that live together and how we forge ties. That is what Star Trek is. Star Trek is to me about empathy. So fundamentally the idea that there is no conflict on the way to utiopia is absurd and it wouldn’t be good storytelling.

He then went into detail on how the Roddenberry Rule wouldn’t work with serialized storytelling:

The idea of the Roddenberry Rule which again I think has found its own life even more so after the original series – doesn’t work at all in serialized storytelling. Jim Kirk could watch Edith Keeler die and be literally ruined by it and be fine the next week, because he had to be. And that is not the truth of serialized storytelling today. Our characters carry their losses with them from episode to episode. They carry their love that they start to feel or animosity or the trust or mistrust. All those are the grammars of forging community both in a fractal way as Sonequa Martin-Green’s character and in a global way as the Federation is tested and these ideals in the context of war.

Akiva Goldsman at Discovery writers panel at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017

A huge show

Goldsman drew a comparison with his previous work on the Fox show Fringe when talking about the scale of Discovery:

That was typical sized smart TV sci-fi. It doesn’t hold a candle to what we are doing. The complexity, the narrative ambition, and the scope of the object. And that trailer isn’t every effects shot, that really is the show. Most of that is from the first three episodes. It is so tremendous that it’s kind of holding hands and jumping together.

And Ted compared Discovery to his work on Revenge:

I worked on Revenge for a bunch of seasons which is a heavily serialized show. It was incredibly difficult to write. It was so much backstory and each episode had to build on the other and try to make sense of a giant jigsaw puzzle. That is what we do with this and there is a huge amount of extra burden on it because it is Star Trek.

Yes, there will be technobabble

With all the talk of war and character development does Discovery skimp on the science? Beyer delved into this one:

Star Trek always tries to be true to science as much as it can but some of what we do is beyond our grasp at this point. But it what it does have is a very specific internal logic. So as long we understand what the Heisenberg Compensator is and what it does we can accept it without breaking that stuff down. In a lot of ways as the role of science in what we are doing and not so much exploring new concepts that are going to be breaking all kinds of new ground in that way. But making sure that whatever we are building makes sense.

Sullivan noted that the staff includes many with science backgrounds, including Ph.Ds, and so there will be some tech in Star Trek: Discovery:

All of us have a love for science and a respect for science and it infuses our scripts and it infuses our stories.

He also confirmed that there still will be technobabble. He noted that most of the actors don’t always love rattling off the tech terms but Anthony Rapp (science officer Stamets) is “amazing at it.”

Ted Sullivan of Star Trek: Discovery at STLV 2017

Ted Sullivan of Star Trek: Discovery at STLV 2017

Character details for Stamets and Saru

The writers also gave some more details on the characters of science officer Lt. Paul Stamets and Saru.

He is a guy who presents with a certain exterior that tends to push people away so what is fun is finding the ways that find a softer, kinder side that is there. What I find amazing about Saru is what Doug [Jones] brought to it. I think we were all searching for who this guy is going to be. Doug has so brought to life this person with this incredible brilliance but also this warmth and compassion and sense of humor and dry wit that is making the evolution of that character fun to watch.

Sullivan added,

[Saru] makes you laugh and he makes you cry in the same episode. I think that is a really, really important aspect of Star Trek. You need to have humor and you certainly need to have pathos. Doug is certainly a worthy torchbearer from Spock to Data.

He also described a Saru-focused episode written by Beyer:

It will feel like the most traditional Star Trek, the most beautiful. What Doug does is just simply jaw-dropping. You will find out so much about his culture and there are so many surprises about him.

Goldsman added that it is hard to describe the characters because each has their own arc:

The characters present in a particular way – each and every one of them – at the start of the show. The title is not an accident. This is long-form storytelling based on character. That is not to say we don’t have plot because god we have plot. Fundamentally our runner is character-driven.

Akiva Goldsman of Star Trek: Discovery at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017

Akiva Goldsman of Star Trek: Discovery at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017

New ways to experience Klingons (and some Vulcans too)

Talking about the Klingon aspects of the show, Beyer confirmed they are working with Klingon language experts for Discovery, and she spoke of her experience expanding the lore of the Klingons:

It is has been super fun to take a species that in some ways feel well-established but in a a lot of ways when you dig into they have been monolithic. Their duty and their honor. And to image what a certain period in their history might have produced has been incredibly fun and has given us all kinds of new ways to talk about and experience Klingons.

Goldsman added a note on the Federation-Klingon war:

One of the driving forces of this war was to not vilify either side. The show is often told from both points of view. It is certainly about the Federation, but there are significant section of the narrative that are purely from the Klingon point of view and in Klingon. That allows the audience to participate in the debate of who is right and who is wrong.

During the Q&A they were asked if the show would dive into more known Star Trek cultures. It appears not so much, with Goldsman saying:

Klingons are the focus but there is definable a medium deep dive into Vulcans and what it means to be Vulcan. And there are some old fan favorites but not with any real penetrative depth.

Kirsten Beyer at Discovery writers’ panel at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017

Star Trek passion in the writers’ room

Each of the three talked of their passion and history with the franchise. Goldsman talked about how he went to his first Star Trek convention as a 14-year-old in 1976 in New York.

[Star Trek] was the first thing I ever loved. It was the first piece of television that I had a relationship with. It is insane that I get to do this. The 14-year-old in me wakes up stunned and grateful. I talked J.J. [Abrams] into putting me into both movies. I have cameos in both. I am so proud and thrilled and moved by doing that I actually almost got a divorce over this. It has become the single most important thing in my life.

Kirsten talked about her first memories of Star Trek , watching it with her brother as a child as it was the only show they could both agree on, noting:

My first memory is sitting in front of this TV show that was so amazing – I love it.

She said later in the life it was Star Trek: Voyager that inspired her to become a writer. She has written many Voyager novels and she joked it only took 20 years for her to reach her dream of writing for a Star Trek TV show.

Ted Sullivan said he had been watching Star Trek since he was eight years old, after he fell in love with it watching “City on the Edge of Forever.” He later focused on reading the books, both fiction and non-fiction. And later he began his writing career when he and his brother took it upon themselves to write a sequel to Star Trek III after they became obsessed with that film. He gave a brief synopsis:

They were flying back in the Bird of Prey and they get captured by the Klingons. There is a war that is brewing and Kirk has to broker a peace which is very difficult for him because he just lost his son to the Klingons. So there are some ties to what we are doing now.

Sullivan also pointed out that it isn’t just the Trekkies who were sent to STLV, the writers’ room in general has a love for Trek:

We are really lucky in the room…We have people that are supportive that when someone is on the board they come in early and they stay late. There is a mutual love and respect for Star Trek because literally everyone in the room loves Star Trek and understand how important it. These people on the couch with me are partially writers because of Star Trek, I am partially a writer because of Star Trek. There are others.

However it isn’t all uniform, he said:

I think the room is hard. We argue some times. We have different opinions of what Star Trek is. It is different things to different people.

Kirsten Beyer and Ted Sullivan of Star Trek: Discovery at STLV 2017

Kirsten Beyer and Ted Sullivan of Star Trek: Discovery at STLV 2017

Jason Gorn cameo

Sullivan brought his friend Jason Gorn (a tiny Gorn action figure that has sort of become a social media-fueled mascot for the writers) to the con. He reported that there are many more behind-the-scenes photos from the set with Jason and promised he will be able to share those in the future.

Jason Gorn cameo at Star Trek Las Vegas 2017


Stay tuned for more coverage from Star Trek Las Vegas!

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